Fourteen days ago I suffered a “massive heart attack”, whatever that might really mean. This was a cause to consider the often-mysterious workings of karma. During the past year I had been forced for many reasons to consider my karma and why events of my life had taken the turn they had. With the experience of near death came a perspective I had not considered. Life and death are real experiential events and not just philosophical considerations. Some would have us believe that in “emptiness” there is no life or death — a very cool sounding but ultimately useless expression — without emptiness death would not be a reality we must all one day face. We die because we live, we are alive because we were born. Oddly, birth is the cause of death and between the two we live out our lives as best we can. How we live and die and are reborn is a matter defined by our karma.
Even within the Buddhist community, where the concepts of “karma” and “Dharma” are central to our practice, both are too often misunderstood. Karma is most often viewed from a negative, backward-looking, myopic perspective. Karma has been used to encourage the disadvantaged persons within our culture to accept their situation in life as being of their own making — as one person running for the 2012 presidential Republican nomination, “If you don’t have an education and can’t get a job, blame yourself.” As a Conservative he believed that people actively choose poverty. Present suffering is attributed to our own negatively created causes of the past.
Considering themselves to blame for their situation, some people have fallen victim to a sense of powerlessness. This is a misrepresentation of the original sense of the “karma” as it is used in the Buddhist context. Acceptance of the idea of karma does not mean to live under a sentence of guilt and vague anxiety, not knowing what bad causes we may have spawned in the past. It empowers us to be assured that our future is in our very own hands and that we have the power to transform it into something of beauty and the betterment of others and ourselves at any instant.
In its most basic meaning, karma means “actions”, the “work” we do; denoting the universal operation of a principle of causation. This is similar to the notion upheld by modern mechanistic scientific views of the universe. Science tells us that everything in the universe exists within the structure of cause and effect. “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” is a familiar Newtonian principle. The difference between the materialistic causality of science and the Buddhist principle of karma is that the latter is not limited to those things that can be seen or measured. In that sense, karma works more on a quantum level of causes and conditions leading to “perceptible” effects. It includes in its equation unobserved or “spiritual” aspects of life, such as the sensation or experience of joy or sadness, benevolence or malice.
There is an essential difference between the Buddhist concept of causal relations and the machine-like view of causation holding sway over the materialist view of the “natural” world, a view that would divorce the universe from human consciousness. The Buddha’s Dharma sees nature as covering a more broadly defined nature that embraces human existence. The Buddha told his some that “[I]t is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & intellect, that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos.” (Anguttara Nikāya 4.45) For Buddhism, then, the human consciousness is the factor that governs our experiential reality. The illusion of a mechanistic universe is a function of the mind.
Imagine that a misfortune or even a catastrophe has occurred, like the 2016 presidential election in the United States, for example. A mechanistic or materialist model of causation can be used to chase down and label events to explain how the mishap ensued yet this view falls mute concerning the question of why particular persons find themselves emotionally caught up and entrapped in these events. The mechanistic/materialist view of the universe necessitates the deliberate avoidance of such existential matters.
The Buddhist understanding of causation directly addresses these “whys” as being crucial to the understanding of causation itself.
The Sanskrit word karma originally meant “work” or “responsibility”, and related to infinitive that mean simply “to do” or “to make.” We create karma in three ways:
It is assumed that actions ought to have a greater bearing than meager words, but we know this is only partly true. Verbalizing our conceptualizations creates more karma than simply thinking of them. Realistically, as both words and actions begin as thoughts, the contents of our hearts, thoughts are of crucial importance.
Karma may be seen as the very core of our individuality. Karma is catalysts of the profound tendencies that have been embossed onto the deepest levels of our being. The most vital cycles of cause and effect extend beyond the present moment; they structure the mode in which we begin life, the unique conditions from the moment of birth, and will continue beyond this continuum of lifetime into death and beyond. Buddhist practice is to transform our elementary life inclinations in order to actualize our complete human potential in this lifetime and beyond.
The primary step in this transformation is to not neglect discernment. To what extent do we consciously neglect discernment? Discernment is insight into how the mind fabricates its experiences. This process of fabrication is going on all the time yet part of the mind chooses to ignore it. The average person is much more concerned in the experiences that result from the fabrication: the physical, mental, and emotional conditions we crave to relish and possess. It’s like watching a movie. We enjoy entering into the make-believe world on the screen, and prefer to ignore the background noises that would call the experiential reality of that world into question.
This ignorance is a deliberate choice we make and we need to make a choice to see through it, to discern the background of the mind. This kind of discernment has two sides: understanding and provocation. We have to understand the mind’s fabrications as fabrications, looking more at the how they happen as part of a causal process and less at what is there in the process. We need to motivate ourselves to develop this perceptiveness to understand why we want it to influence our mind.
The fundamental insight of the Buddha’s Awakening was to see things as actions and events in arrays of cause and effect. It involves understanding how some actions are unskillful, leading to stress and suffering, while others are skillful, bringing end to stress. We have the freedom to choose skillful actions or not — and this is our only real freedom. This understanding is called appropriate attention and is the underlying structure of the four noble truths.
Like everything karma is in constant fluidity. We create our own present and future by the choices we make in each moment. Understood in this way, karma does not support acquiescence to our situational circumstances but instead empowers us to become the heroes in the unfolding drama of our lives.